Maisie Williams as Arya Stark. (Helen Sloan / HBO )
Anyone who dismisses television viewing as a passive activity clearly hasn't watched "Game of Thrones." HBO's crown jewel requires the sort of OCD focus and possibly the same picture-plastered, color-coded white board that Carrie Mathison used to track down Abu Nazir in Showtime's "Homeland."
As with the George R.R. Martin series from whence it sprung, "Game of Thrones" has redefined "sprawling epic." And as Season 3 opens, the sprawl factor is perilously high, with the multitudinous characters — seven families, people, from seven kingdoms — scattered all over Westeros, their story lines progressing in an ever-climbing wall of overlapping layers, a citadel of narrative.
For those just joining the show, here's what you need to know: Abu Nazir is about the only one not trying to sit on the Iron Throne. Everyone else, from Dragon mistress and possibly true heir Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) to little crippled Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), is a potential contender; they just have to get through the mud and cold and ravening armies to depose the current despotic brat-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), whose murder every viewer is awaiting with morbid eagerness. Step by grimy, blood- and urine-soaked step, everyone on screen is slouching toward his or her destiny. Because winter is coming, and three-eyed ravens don't show up to herald an annual white sale.
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Having made the decision to stay true to the original text, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss challenge viewers just as Martin challenged readers. Each episode juggles half a dozen mini-episodes.
In scenes that last but a few minutes, the narrative shifts continually across wood and water and frozen sky, slides in through windows and behind closed doors, snakes between bodies as they sleep and shiver and mate.
We see first the grim horror of the blue-eyed White Walkers risen once again beyond the wall where Jon Snow (Kit Harington) learns the ways of the wildings. We then sail to Kings Landing, where denizens battle a similar fear, though now cloaked in silk and courtly menace as Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Cersei (Lena Headey) regroup in wake of temporary victory. Now here's Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) trotting cross-country at the tip of Brienne's (Gwendoline Christie) sword, and young Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) still trying to return to her home at Winterfell.
It's a lot of story to keep track of, too much perhaps. An epic quest invariably begins with a host of characters participating in one story line until the molten hammer of a main event (in this case the death of King Robert Baratheon) sends everyone scattering like sparks into the dark. There, each continues his or her journey, meeting new characters, discovering new landscapes, conquering new foes until those who survive the tale return, however many books later, to one another's company.
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Compared to Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire," J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" is compact and streamlined, the film trilogy even more so. Peter Jackson famously jettisoned many beloved characters (oh, Tom Bombadil, the faithful still mourn), subplots and even entire races from his version of Tolkien's tale. Four episodes into "Games of Thrones," it's difficult not to wonder whether the writers shouldn't adopt a bit of their characters' near-universal brutality and do a little hacking of their own. How important is Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), really? And would anyone really miss creepy priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who always seems as if she's wandered over from "Grimm"?
No doubt howls of protest will greet such suggestions, and it does seem like critical heresy to fault a show for such an admirable mix of characters, male and female, old and young, weak and strong. The show's ability to keep so many swords in the air is fascinating in and of itself.
HBO has always prided itself on being willing to go where normal television will not, though where many of its other shows are odd and prickly in their quirks and qualities, "Game of Thrones" is very much of its time, in both meat and bone. Recapping and episodic deconstruction has become a national obsession, and fantasy, which combines a gamer's love of journey and gore with a literati love of language, has never been more popular.
So break out the Post-it notes and the red string, clear a big place on the back wall and buy the big box of colored Sharpies. "Game of Thrones" is back, and we all need to keep our wits about us.